A couple of years ago, 205 Live went through a big creative shift. It was handed over to Triple H, and the product finally started to resemble the wonderful Cruiserweight Classic. In other words, it was the show we were actually promised all those years ago. I caught wind of this and decided to give it a shot, starting with the tournament to crown a new champion that began in January of 2018. And I fully believe that during that year, 205 Live was the very best wrestling show that absolutely nobody was watching. And my favorite guy on the show, by a pretty wide margin actually, ended up being Mustafa Ali.
At the time, I barely even really knew of him. I loved the CWC but he was knocked out in the first round. Couple of NXT appearances, some 205 Live matches during the first few weeks before me and my friends realized it wasn’t what we hoped it’d be during that period. He had very humble beginnings in WWE. Wasn’t a major indy name, didn’t have much fanfare or character profiles, wasn’t featured in lengthy main event bouts. He wasn’t meant to be a big deal. Actually, he wasn’t planned to even be there in the first place.
It’s wild to think now that Ali wasn’t even supposed to be in the CWC originally.
A competitor named Zumbi was meant to get the spot but missed the tourney due to visa issues, and so Ali subbed in. And keep in mind, even among the people that were slotted to be in from the start, many of them didn’t get another opportunity. Others who went out in the first round included Alejandro Saez, Da Mack, Jason Lee, Anthony Bennett, Clement Petiot and Tyson Dux, and to date none of them have wrestled for WWE again ever since.
But Ali impressed enough to get a contract. And by the time I finally started paying attention to him, he’d paid enough dues to really show his stuff. He was damned sure impressive. Sure, he was an athletic guy but he was surrounded by them. He had more than enough flash, but he was in WWE’s flashiest division. What really stood out above anything else, was that he was clearly the most effective babyface on the show. He bumped like mad, sold excellently, played a brilliant underdog and had one of the most exciting comebacks in the game.
In particular his feud with Buddy Murphy is one I’ll never forget. A lovely mix of of stellar talent and pure storytelling. I still vividly recall Buddy stopping Ali from a dive by simply sliding into the ring, getting right in his face and shushing him. And you could see on Ali’s face that he realized he was in there with someone not only stronger than he’d ever be, but also much faster than him. And yet, through targeting the arm – including with an incredible 450 right into it – he was able to neutralize Buddy’s considerable strengths and find a way to win.
It was one of those rare (atleast on the mainstream stage) matches that prove you don’t have to choose between psychology and spectacle. You can absolutely have both and it was a beautiful thing. It was like that every time those two locked up. And yes, even back then he was showing off impressive promo skills, not to mention some creativity as he began producing his own vignettes:
It was always a little baffling to me really that Ali never ended up winning the Cruiserweight title. I really did want him to be the one to unseat Murphy in a big grand finale to that rivalry. But alas, it seemed even on that level, Ali was always just below where it felt he should be.
He’s a great wrestler, and a great babyface. But he’s also a lot more than that.
I’ve gone this long without mentioning it but it is pretty important. Mustafa Ali’s real name is Adeel Alam. He was born and raised in Illinois by immigrant parents, his father from Pakistan and his mother from India. Ali happens to be Muslim. That is to say, a Muslim-American who came of age in the early 2000s.
And I think anyone who has been following wrestling for any real stretch of time probably understands the significance of a Muslim babyface. The sport has a lengthy history of villainous portrayals of foreigners, particularly those hailing from countries that America is thought to be in conflict with. It took Marc Copani 13 years to be comfortable enough to wrestle again after his run as the villainous Arab American Muhammad Hassan ended up being too controversial for it’s own good.
Indeed, early on in his career, Ali struggled to avoid being pigeonholed as the dastardly foreign heel that people who look like him and have names like ‘Adeel Alam’ are expected to be. For a time he wrestled under a mask to hide his ethnicity and avoid stereotypes. Eventually he had to cave and play to it for a while but that only highlighted to him the danger of teaching people to hate.
Over time, his stance strengthened and now he refuses to play the foreign heel again.
Anyone who follows Mustafa Ali on Twitter will see just the smallest taste of what he gets everyday by simply being who he is and being so visible. People so casually spit such vile things at him on a daily basis and yet he handles it like almost no one else would ever be able to.
It’s one thing to say it’s the right way to respond, as I believe it is. It’s another to actually do it.
It’s another to actually be able to face it like this and respond not only rationally, but kindly, every single time.
I really don’t know that I’d ever be able to respond in nearly the same way. I don’t know if there’s a lot of people out there who could.
I can’t express my admiration for it enough.
We don’t just need more people like Mustafa in wrestling. We need more people like him period.
This vibe of understanding and forgiveness, it just couldn’t be any more welcome right now.
Mustafa Ali is also a former police officer – one who has called for police reform.
For people in a position like his, it can be easy to dig in your heels and pretend no change is needed, to simply say that police get a bad wrap. But while he did share this lovely thread of incredible acts of kindness he witnessed during his time on the force, largely just because someone asked him to, even that ended with this:
And it’s not a one-off.
As always, he wants to use his position to promote a positive change.
Jumping back to wrestling – Today, Mustafa Ali faces many of the same struggles most of the main roster endures.
It’s quite normal to see a promising upstart come up in WWE, gain a tiny bit of momentum and see it get stomped out. This has happened to even some of the most talented wrestlers of this generation like Ricochet, and it’s certainly happened with Ali several times.
He does have one reoccurring issue that’s a bit more central to him though, his battles to keep his first name. Now, it’s a very common WWE practice to suddenly remove either the first or last name of a performer. Antonio Cesaro became Cesaro, Andrade Cien Almas is just Andrade, Elias Samson became Elias. It used to happen to almost every woman they ever had, and even Charlotte sometimes loses her last name and her last name is Flair for God’s sake!
So on some level, it’s not strange that WWE – on two occasions, mind you – have tweaked Mustafa Ali’s name to simply be ‘Ali’.
But in this particular case, the vibe of the removal is quite different. And perhaps not accidentally.
Something people of various ethnicities can struggle with is having a name that sounds, for lack of a better word, ‘scary’ to some of the people they deal with. They can often be pressured to forsake their birth name and adopt something more familiar to their peers, purely to make them more comfortable. And many immigrants to America will choose to give their child an “American sounding name” to make it less likely that they’ll be stereotyped or bullied.
I don’t want to shame anyone that does that last part at all, it’s understandable. But it’s definitely sad, and to be peer pressured into using some nickname to hide your real one is undoubtedly a pretty racist interaction.
I bet you thought I was done sharing tweets.
Suffice to say, he’s well aware of this. And it’s pretty relevant. A lot of people like to adapt the name Ali from the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and there’s plenty of reasons for that. But I think one of them is that, unlike most Arab-sounding names, “Ali” is one that we have never been trained to be afraid of. There was a beloved superstar with that name already, so we’re already comfortable with it.
It didn’t really take with his first name so much, likely because of the connection to the famous Islamic prophet. (Ali was actually his brother but I don’t think as many people know about that.) All the same, ‘Ali’ became a much more friendly name thanks to the boxer. And so if you want to make a Muslim character into a babyface for an American audience, it’s likely the first name you’d think to give that character.
The name ‘Mustafa’, on the other hand, doesn’t really have that going for it. To the American layman, it’s just a very clearly Arabic name. No less ‘discomforting’ than any other. And on some level, I do think WWE’s want to drop it might stem from this.
That makes it pretty admirable, and pretty powerful, that Mustafa Ali fought against this and won.
He’s been fairly public about his unhappiness with the change when it happened. This took place throughout 2019. I actually recall it being shortened again a couple of months ago upon his return only for him to regain it a second time but now I can’t find evidence of that. Regardless it’s a fight he’s been through once, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen again.
While he was able to get his full name restored, it’s hard to imagine he did himself any favors politically in the process. Not to say it’s the direct cause of his creative stifling, since almost everyone in WWE gets that, but I don’t think it helped.
Nevertheless it’s important that this name be normalized. He doesn’t want to be accepted for blending in and having his ethnicity hidden, he doesn’t want to be thought of as “one of the good ones”. He wants to break down stereotypes for everyone.
In conclusion, there is nothing holding Mustafa Ali back from being a star.
I don’t just think it could happen, I believe that it will happen. Maybe within WWE, maybe outside of it. It’s not like it’s the only big platform out there for him to show people the light. Regardless, talent like his can’t be denied and moreover, a person like him can’t be denied either.
To me, Adeel Alam is already a hero.
It’s just a matter of time before Mustafa Ali follows suit.